Forbidden Wilderness

In 1986, the Chernobyl reactor disaster shook the world and irradiated a vast region east of Polesia

By Christina Götz
In 2013, Michael Brombacher and a group of English scientists were given just half a day to visit the Belarusian part of the Chernobyl protection zone. "Our trip through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was memorable, but also depressing," recalls Michael Brombacher, Head of the FZS' European Programme. "At times we felt we were travelling through a pristine European wilderness. But then we came across abandoned houses still containing the personal belongings that their former inhabitants had to leave behind when they were evacuated in 1986. And then, of course, we saw the striking yellow and red radioactivity warning signs which served as sharp reminders that this wilderness has only developed over a relatively short period of time."

The group was accompanied by rangers from the Belarusian park administration, as access to the restricted zone is still carefully monitored, and is prohibited without permission. 33 years after the reactor catastrophe, Chernobyl remains a gigantic, involuntary experiment. For years there has been heated scientific debate about the best way to assess and interpret the effects of radioactivity on wildlife and nature. This is because the results are contradictory, depending on the group of animals or plants being examined. In addition, most studies are based on small sample sizes or short periods of time, as access to the area is very limited for scientists.
A warning sign in Chernobyl exclusion zone (c) Michael Brombacher
Warning signs in the Chernobyl exclusion zone remind visitors of the increased radiation exposure

Michael Brombacher was only able to gain a cursory overview of the death zone. Yet he was impressed by how quickly nature had reclaimed the land. The warbling call of the black grouses, whose mating season had already begun, sounded from all directions. The birds could be seen everywhere. The large mammals had not taken long to arrive, either. Brombacher spotted the first elk only half an hour into the trip. And only a short time later a wolf appeared by the roadside in the middle of the day.

A wolf in the Chernobyl exclusion zone (c) Michael Brombacher
A wolf in the Chernobyl exclusion zone

Research in an area being reclaimed by nature

116,000 people had to be evacuated and a restricted zone established within 30 kilometres of the nuclear power plant following the reactor accident on 26 April 1986. Today, the 4,500 square-kilometre restricted area is divided almost equally between Belarusian and Ukrainian territory. FZS project manager Viktar Fenchuk comes from Belarus and has visited the Chernobyl exclusion zone several times. A large part of the restricted zone is strictly protected in both countries and may only be entered with special permission. This makes the protected area probably the largest zone with such high protection status in Europe, and is unique in terms of its ongoing wilderness processes," says Fenchuk. The "Polesye State Radiation-Ecological Reserve" was founded back in 1988 in Belarus.

A biosphere reserve (covering two thirds of the restricted zone) was not established in Ukraine until 2016. The Chernobyl areas, which have since returned to wilderness, provide valuable scientific insights into how nature develops without human intervention. The original goal of the exclusion zone was to seal off – for centuries – the radiation-contaminated area. A scientific department was set up to investigate how the landscape develops without the ongoing interference of man, yet under the influence of high radiation exposure. A dramatic catastrophe has involuntarily created a vast space for scientific investigation. Where else in Europe can the interaction between so many species and landscape development without human interference be explored? Chernobyl provides valuable data for the planning of large-scale nature conservation projects and for the renaturation of "abused" landscapes, such as former military training areas.

The radiation exposure varies depending on the distance from the former reactor. Therefore, mutations in the genomes of animal and plant species can still occur today. It is being investigated whether these mutations have a negative effect only on the life expectancy of individual creatures or whether they change entire populations. It is possible that radiation exposure may even be carried far beyond the restricted zone through the migration of animals. Not all interactions have been investigated so far, yet the development of animal and plant populations over the past 30 years already shows that the process of natural succession continues, even after a nuclear catastrophe. Forests and increasingly species-rich habitats are developing again, even for rare species, in the areas around Chernobyl which largely consisted of open and agricultural land before 1986. The only species for whom the area will be lost for centuries – or even millennia – is probably us humans.

abandoned house in chernobyl (c) Michael Brombacher
An abandoned house in the Chernobyl exclusion zone

Rare animal species settle in the exclusion zone

In some cases, human intervention in nature appears to have a stronger influence on animals and plants than the current levels of radiation exposure. Species such as the white stork, which have adapted to life near human settlements, declined after 1986. Instead, increasing numbers of predators have migrated into the restricted zone, above all buzzards and goshawks. These have adopted the fallow agricultural areas as a new habitat. But larger species, such as the spotted eagle and the brown bear, have also returned to the region. "Before the reactor disaster, there were no spotted eagles there. In the meantime, more than ten breeding pairs have settled in the Belarusian protected zone," says Viktar Fenchuk, who has been in charge of the FZS project areas in Belarus for several years.

Elk crossing the road in the Chernobyl exclusion zone (c) Michael Brombacher
An elk crossing the road in Chernobyl exclusion zone
The spotted eagle is particularly sensitive to disturbance and its population numbers are declining in Polesia. This makes it all the more remarkable that it has chosen the Chernobyl protection zone of all places as its new breeding area. For wildlife researchers, the return of the spotted eagle provides evidence of an undisturbed natural space. According to Viktar Fenchuk, more than 2,000 elk live in the protected area, as do wolves and lynxes, with the numbers rising. Only the fox and raccoon dog populations have shrunk. In 2015, an international scientific study revealed that elk, red deer, fallow deer and wild boar were now as common there as in other unpolluted protected areas in the region. Wolves, however, were seven times more numerous.

Michael Brombacher left the protected area in 2013 with mixed feelings. Fascinated by how nature can reclaim the world once we humans have disappeared, but also deeply concerned about what we are doing to our planet.

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